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Professor Colin Beale


Research overview

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Spatial ecology and conservation science

I work on a wide range of ecological problems from population dynamics and distributions to fire ecology in the African savannah. The main thread linking different strands of my research is a fundamental interest in spatial processes in ecology, from the way individual animals move across a landscape, through the patterns and processes that shape individual species distributions, to global patterns in biodiversity.

I'm interested in understanding all aspects of spatial variation in ecological processes at a range of spatial scales, using and developing appropriate statistical techniques alongside an active programme of field research in the UK and Africa. Currently, many species distributions are shifting as a consequence of global climate change and I'm also interested in the demographic processes that drive such shifts.

Much of my work focusses on birds and I collaborate with a wide range of conservation organisations to ensure that a variety of additional interests tackle problems of practical significance from increasing the effectiveness of ranger patrols in East Africa (Fig 1) to managing fire in savannah ecosystems (Fig 2).

Figure 1: Working with the Wildlife Conservation Society and Uganda Wildlife Authority, we have developed methods to map illegal activities in protected areas from ranger-based monitoring data (left) that allow more efficient direction of rangers towards hotspots of snaring activity (right).

Figure 2: Our work on fire shows that diversity in fire types (pyrodiversity) drive richness patterns in birds and mammals across African savannahs. We discovered lower pyrodiversity but higher richness and steeper relationships in wet savannas ( 650 mm year−1, green points) than drier ones(

Teaching and scholarship

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My aim as a teacher is to inspire students to delve deeply into subject matter, linking theory and practical applications through critical evaluation of empirical evidence.

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The world is facing unprecedented environmental challenges that require ecologists to be at the forefront of discovering and delivering solutions. My lectures highlight the challenges and opportunities that ecologists face when engaging with real-world environmental problems from overharvesting to land-use conflicts. I also provide practical-based teaching for advanced computational methods to undergraduate and post-graduate ecologists, using a problem-based learning approach wherever possible.

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My tutorials cover a range of topics, from philosophy of science, through savannah ecology to topics on ornithology. In my ornithology tutorials I like to take students outside to see and experience birdlife first hand. In all topics I seek to support students developing important skills in writing, presentation and experimental design. 

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Projects offered in my lab are drawn from my current research interests. Typically I offer a choice of field projects studying birds around York and data analysis projects that focus on the analysis of UK or East African datasets, from analyses of data on collared elephants to understanding the distribution of plant richness patterns from publically available datasets. 

Fieldwork: I believe fieldwork is a core experience all ecologists need and the highlight of my teaching year is taking a group of undergraduates to Tanzania for a detailed introduction to tropical ecology. Camping in a remote savannah in Northern Tanzania we make the bush our classroom, with outdoor lessons in tropical ecology supporting students to design and undertake ecological field projects inspired by their own interests in the plants and animals of the savannah biome.

Contact details

Professor Colin Beale
Department of Biology
University of York
YO10 5DD

Tel: 01904 328615